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Book Review: Stasiland: Stories From Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder

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Take a walk through Berlin today and you'll have a job finding evidence that this was once a divided city. There's certainly a sizeable chunk of the Berlin Wall on Potsdamer Platz. But in the shadow of the futuristic Sony Centre it looks more like a modern art installation than a remnant of the Cold War. As time goes by, Berlin seems finally to be getting over the Wall.

But as Anna Funder discovered, the grim monument that once defined the city still looms large in many Berliners' minds. In what was once the eastern sector of the city, Funder gets into conversation with a with a toilet attendant, and asks if she has travelled since the changes. "Not yet," says the woman, " But I'd like to. Bali, something like that. Or China. Yes, China. You know what I'd really like to do? I'd really like to have me a look at that Wall of theirs."

In 1945, the East Germans exchanged one set of monsters for another. The puppet government installed by Soviet liberators turned the entire country into a psychiatric hospital. Inside this home for the bewildered, the schizophrenic inmates feigned contentment in a Marxist paradise,while enduring an Orwellian hell. Two armies kept things in check: one defended the country from outside attack, the other tackled the enemy within. It was the shameful legacy of this internal army – the Stasi – that Funder, an Australian journalist, set out to uncover.

In the German Democratic Republic, it sometimes seemed as if everyone was an informer. Spies were in the schools and factories, the shops and streets. A chance remark one day could land you in prison the next. Funder's journey through Stasiland uncovers stories of careers destroyed, families broken, lives ruined by state-sponsored nastiness.

Among the brave, reluctant heroes who railed against this tyranny was Miriam, a woman whose break for freedom put her in prison while still a teenager. Marriage to another free spirit brought Miriam happiness for a time. But then her husband too was imprisoned and tortured. The manner in which she discovered he was dead beggars belief. Years after the Wall came down, Miriam is still unable to achieve closure. The circumstances of her husband's death and doubts surrounding the whereabouts of his remains continue to haunt her.

As well as hearing stories from the victims of the Stasi, Funder also attracts the attention of the agency’s former officers. Clinging to their faded notions of self-importance, these spies who came in from the Cold War are eager to tell their stories: there’s the man who was given a pot of paint in 1961 and told to mark out the route of the Berlin Wall; the unrepentant Marxist whose weekly TV show fired anti-Western thunderbolts across the border; and the former spy who transferred his surveillance skills to the free market and became a private detective.

For all its bleak subject matter, Funder's book is not a depressing read. She has an informal, almost casual approach, injecting personal feelings and experiences into the story, along with vivid descriptions of her surroundings and the characters she encounters. And although she's not attempting a definitive history of East Germany, Funder can teach her readers much about the politics and ideology of a miserable state that had the nerve to call itself a Democratic Republic.

Some estimates suggest there was one Stasi informer for every six East German citizens, surveillance on a scale that even the Gestapo and the KGB couldn't have matched. Yet the heartening message from Stasiland is that even as cracks started to appear in the monolith, this massive intelligence machine failed to see the writing on the Wall.

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